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Many Air Travelers With Disabilities Encounter Hurdles to Verify Service Dogs

Many Air Travelers With Disabilities Encounter Hurdles to Verify Service Dogs

Joanna Lubkin, a Unitarian Universalist minister, has chronic pain and fatigue and relies on her service dog, a 4-year-old black Labrador named Sully, to pick up items she drops, press elevator buttons and brace her when her body weakens. She never travels without him.

In June, when she and Sully arrived at the Pittsburgh International Airport to fly home to Boston after a conference, the agent at the JetBlue Airlines gate told her that there were no forms on file certifying Sully as a service dog, and refused to let her board.

Since 2021, the Department of Transportation has required travelers with disabilities to fill out a standard form before boarding an aircraft with their trained service animal, attesting to the dog’s health, behavior and training. Before her flight to Pittsburgh on Delta Air Lines, Ms. Lubkin, 37, had completed the D.O.T. form for both Delta and JetBlue and uploaded it to their websites. With Delta, she experienced no issues.

But a week later she found herself stranded in Pittsburgh, confused and frustrated. She did not know she was only one of many travelers with disabilities encountering hurdles with the verification process, and finding themselves stuck at the airport even after they had correctly verified their service dogs for air travel.

JetBlue is one of four airlines that uses a third-party — a small, Chicago-based company called Open Doors Organization — to review the new D.O.T. forms and issue approvals or denials on their behalf. And when Ms. Lubkin arrived at her gate for her return flight home, she was told Open Doors had not verified her form, and she would not be allowed to fly.

Angry and tired, Ms. Lubkin called a friend, who offered to drive her 570 miles back to Boston.

“Flying is physically painful for me and for a lot of people,” she said. “Making it that much harder for us to travel is just unjust, and it doesn’t feel right to me.”

A JetBlue spokesman acknowledged her concerns.

“We understand that we need to ensure better consistency in verifying paperwork during travel on all flights of a customer’s itinerary,” said Derek Dombrowski, the airline’s senior manager for corporate communications.

Before the coronavirus, air travelers looking to bring an animal into the cabin had to adhere to airlines’ individual rules for flying with pets, which sometimes required the purchase of a special ticket. Fully trained service animals were exempt from any charges.

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